Open Learning Initiative Looks to Change Higher Education

Candace Thille has developed the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) to reduce the failure rates that colleges and universities throughout the country are facing in their introductory courses. As stated in an article by Marc Parry in The Chronicle, "Professors should move away from designing foundational courses in statistics, biology, or other core subjects on the basis of ‘intuition,’ [Thille] argues. Instead, she wants faculty to work with her team to put out the education equivalent of Super Bowl ads: expensively built online course materials, cheaply available to the masses."

Thille’s vision "brings together faculty subject experts, learning researchers, and software engineers to build open online courses grounded in the science of how people learn," according to the article. These courses require students to complete modules online. The software then analyzes the student, builds a profile based on how the student learns, tailors content to the student’s skills, and provides instant feedback to professors.

A big reason behind Thille’s OLI is to prevent students from getting overlooked or lost in the crowd of large introductory college courses. OLI gives each student its undivided attention, much like having a personal tutor. In fact, the initiative will make comments when students begin struggling with their work, but otherwise will remain unobtrusive if they are on a good path, according to the article. It can also answer student questions about what they should do next.

Another big draw to the OLI is the privacy factor. Many students, particularly the ones who are not doing well in school, are typically too embarrassed to ask questions during class when they don’t understand something. This may be because they feel like they are being judged by the professor and the other students. So, they keep quiet and either try to figure it out on their own, or just give up. But the OLI will provide these students with a non-confrontational and private way to ask for aid and help without the potential for embarrassment.

But Chad Taylor, an assistant professor, told the Chronicle that he fears the step-by-step approach used by OLI will, in a way, spoil students. "He worries about what happens when students must face free-form questions, which the computer doesn’t baby them through," according to the article.

Although there is some opposition to OLI, Thille’s creation is catching attention around the nation. "Nowadays rival universities want to hire her. Venture capitalists want to market her courses. The Obama administration wants her advice. And so many foundations want to support her work that she must turn away some would-be backers," according to the article. So, we’ll see if OLI comes to fruition and changes the way introductory courses are taught and how students are evaluated.

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